when one of them happened to be a Bach or Beethoven; and the wonder is that men were found willing to measure their strength against such giants. Occasionally their presumption was rebuked, as when Himmel extemporised before Beethoven in 1796, and Beethoven having listened for a considerable time, turned to Himmel and asked 'Will it be long before you begin?' Beethoven himself excelled all others in extempore, and according to the accounts of his contemporaries his playing was far finer when improvising than when playing a regular composition, even if written by himself. Czerny has left a most interesting account of Beethoven's extempore playing, which is quoted by Thayer (ii. 347), and is worth reproducing here, since it helps us to realise to some extent the effect of his improvising. Czerny says—'Beethoven's improvisation, which created the greatest sensation during the first few years after his arrival at Vienna, was of various kinds, whether he extemporised upon an original or a given theme. 1. In the form of the first movement or the final rondo of a sonata, the first part being regularly formed and including a second subject in a related key, etc., while the second part gave freer scope to the inspiration of the moment, though with every possible application and employment of the principal themes. In allegro movements the whole would be enlivened by bravura passages, for the most part more difficult than any in his published works. 2. In the form of variations, somewhat as in his Choral Fantasia, op. 80, or the last movement of the 9th Symphony, both of which are accurate images of this kind of improvisation. 3. In mixed form, after the fashion of a potpourri, one melody following another, as in the Fantasia op. 77. Sometimes two or three insignificant notes would serve as the material from which to improvise a complete composition, just as the Finale of the Sonata in D, op. 10, No. 3, is formed from its three opening notes.' Such a theme, on which he had 'göttlich phantasirt' at Count Browne's house, has been preserved (Nohl's 'Beethoven's Leben,' iii. 644):—
Another given him by Vogler was the scale of C major, 3 bars, alla breve (Thayer, ii. 236).Since Beethoven many great musicians have extemporised in public—Mendelssohn, Hummel, Moscheles, and, on the organ, our own Wesley, have all been celebrated for their improvisations; but the practice of publicly extemporising, if not extinct, is now very rare. Mendelssohn himself, notwithstanding his uniform success, disliked doing it, and in a letter to his father, written in Oct. 1831 (Reisebriefe, p. 283), even declares his determination never to extemporise in public again; while Hummel on the other hand says ('Art of playing the Pianoforte') that he 'always felt less embarrassment in extemporising before an audience of 2000 or 3000 persons than in executing any written composition to which he was slavishly tied down.' Even the Cadence of a concerto, which was once the legitimate opportunity for the player to exhibit his powers of improvisation, is now usually prepared beforehand.
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- A less definite, but still highly interesting, account of his improvisations is given byStarke in Nohl's 'Beethove nach den Schilderungen seiner Zeitgenommen.' (1877).